CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Keiston Davis regained his life when he almost lost it.
Davis was homeless and sleeping in his car in a parking lot of a Charlotte Walmart one night in January 2016 when a group of young men approached the car and ordered him to get out. He was shot in the face as he exited his car. The would-be robbers fled.
The bullet entered his upper left cheekbone and went through his mouth where an upper tooth stopped it. He spat the bullet out. Just before he lost consciousness, Davis realized that “If I died, I’d have nothing to show for my life.”
Two months later, Davis suffered another heartbreaking setback. His girlfriend at the time had an abortion, which hit him hard.
The shooting and abortion were “like a wakeup call,” he said. “That’s when I became serious about getting off the streets.”
Davis recently celebrated his 25th birthday in his own apartment, he’s traveling for his job with Sherwin-Williams, and has developed a stronger bond with his sister and her children. His life has come full circle from the days when he was homeless and had to steal food and other items to survive.
He credits his turnaround to The Relatives, a Charlotte nonprofit that helps young adults like him find housing, jobs, and other support. Lack of affordable housing keeps many young people on the streets long after they’ve aged out of foster care or they’ve found work.
Davis was able to get an apartment through The Relatives’ Rapid Re-Housing program like this: He volunteered to help a young woman at The Relatives’ On Ramp program move into her apartment. While helping her move into her new place, Davis told an employee with The Relatives about his situation. He was then told to apply for an apartment. A month later, he moved in next door to the young woman he helped move in.
“It’s changed my life,” Davis said of The Relatives. “I know for a fact if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have gotten this job or apartment.”
Davis is one of the success stories, says Tom Montaglione, housing program supervisor at The Relatives.
“He overcame a lot,” Montaglione said.
Unusual funding stream
Charlotte/Mecklenburg County has the highest number of homeless people in the state, according to 2017 data from the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness.
One national public policy expert called The Relatives “a community leader” in the innovative way it is addressing youth and young adult homelessness.
“They’re a fantastic community service provider to young people and families,” said Eric Masten, public policy director at National Network for Youth in Washington, D.C. “Some of the solutions like Rapid Re-Housing don’t necessarily meet the needs of young people or families. So we see communities and programs like The Relatives utilizing the resources they can access … to make sure the young people and families are using national and community resources to make sure they have the full constellation of housing and services to help them transition successfully.”
The Relatives is believed to be one of the few organizations in the country putting homeless youth and young adults in homes with federal and private money. Most other organizations working with homeless youth and young adults only have federal dollars at their disposal, money that comes with strings attached.
“In order to meet the federal definition of homeless, you had to be living on the street or living in a homeless shelter and many of our kids were couch-surfing,” said Trish Hobson, executive director of The Relatives.
So The Relatives sought and received private funding to support two additional housing programs.
The Relatives have received about $200,000 in public and private funding and housed 45 people in the 2½ years since the program started, Hobson said. The money helps pay for rent, gets utilities turned on, and funds other necessities tied to renting an apartment.
The program works with local landlords who in turn offer discounted rates to young people coming through The Relatives.
“We help them build life skills, save money, graduate from school, work or whatever they might need,” Montaglione said. “Hopefully it helps them transition to permanent housing.”
Youth in foster care who age out
Unique Glover recounts how, at 14 years old, he got caught in the revolving door of homelessness and prison. He started stealing cars and robbing to make money so his two brothers and ailing mother could eat, he said.
He and his girlfriend recently got out of jail after doing two years each. Glover now does odd jobs. His girlfriend works in a diner. They stay at a Hampton Inn.
“We’re trying to do everything the right way. I’m not trying to give up,” Glover said.
They are among the 215 visitors a week at On Ramp, The Relatives’ diversion program and resource center for 16- to 24-year-olds.
On Ramp emerged eight years ago after judges, attorneys, and community leaders began noticing kids aging out of foster care and ending up in the juvenile justice system. The program was started to keep kids out of the system.
While it doesn’t house young people, it does give them tools they need to find a home and job, Hobson said.
The Relatives was founded in 1974 to help kids ages 7 to 17. It offers a crisis shelter for kids up to the age of 15. Added in 2010, On Ramp helps young people get their GED or decide on a career. Resources include computers for job or house-hunting and WiFi, resume-writing, household budgets and lawyers who are available to help expunge juvenile records. There’s groups for young mothers and kids interested in running and creating a healthier lifestyle. On Ramp is the only day resource center for 16- to 24-year-olds in Charlotte, Hobson said.
“As a city, we’ve spent a lot of time addressing chronic and veteran homelessness, which has been a push across the country. That comes from Washington, D.C.,” she said. “But we are just starting to put a focus on youth homelessness. We’re not quite there yet with policy and the money and all the things but it’s definitely shifting in that direction.
“I certainly feel like we’re changing these kids’ lives every day,” Hobson said. “That’s not to say there aren’t some kids who fall back. We’re not only keeping them out of the juvenile justice system but we’re setting them up for success as well.”
Editor’s note: This article first appeared at Youth Today and is made possible in part by support from the Park, Raikes, and Tow foundations. Throughout this project, Youth Today will maintain editorial independence.